Cider Orchard Biocomplexity


Orchards can be categorized by the level of intensity in their management (Lush et al. 2009). Traditional orchards are commonly managed with a lower level of intensity than more modern orchards (such as Bush Orchards, or orchards operating on a trellis system.) The traditional orchard as an ecosystem, though artificial in nature, encourages and provides homes for a wide range of plant and animal species. These orchards have been declared as "biodiverse habitats" by many countries, and their maintenance is often encouraged through financial incentive. Old standard trees, a common feature of traditional orchards, can reach significant heights and have large girths. These big trees are grown in managed grasslands that are surrounded by hedgerows or other living fences. This is important as this arrangement produces a species-rich ecosystem.

This is sharply in contrast with modern styles of orchard management which are often composed of a single (or a mere handful) of varieties. Modern orchards have significantly smaller trees that often lack a clear trunk, a critical habitat for many wild species. Further, the short life span of trees in a modern orchard limits their ability to develop as hosts to other species. Even the arrangement of the trees and lack of living fences tend to reduce ecosystem diversity in these orchards. The use of chemical pesticides actively reduces the diversity of pollinators and other natural communities. In short, these modern intensive systems are not engineered to be sustainable.


Traditional orchards were engineered for several purposes. One of the major purposes was surely the production of fruit for cider (fermented apple juice). Apple fermentation into cider is a relatively simple process, unlike the relatively complex production of most beer and wines. Traditional cider is the result of autofermentation with naturally occurring yeasts. The process begins with the fruit beginning to ferment on the ground in the field. It is difficult to prevent juice of cider apples from fermenting. Once sugars in the fruit or juice have been converted to alcohol, low pH and high tannin levels in cider apple varieties slow the conversion process that leads to vinegar. It should be noted that not all apple varieties are equally adapted to this process. Juice from sweet apples, for example, will rapidly continue on to vinegar.


No one knows when the cider technologies were learned, but the widely used term “cider” is quite ancient and predates the Indo-European language expansion. Cider is mentioned in the Assyrian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh as the name of the maker of fermented beverages. The Phoenician term for fermented apples is "cider", and it is possible that the Phoenicians are responsible for common vocabulary, technology, and plants distributed around Southern Europe. These simple processes make cider a candidate for one of the oldest fermented beverages in the world.


Cider has long provided humans with an important (perhaps vital) source of safe potable liquids. As a result, humans became the major disperser of apple varieties as they relied on the ecosystem services provided by apples. The provision of an economical, reliable, dispersed way to harvest water allowed people to inhabit areas that were otherwise unsuitable. This use of apples, and the corresponding cider-production technology, promoted apples into a keystone species. This is true both in wild apple forests and orchard complexes; apples are an ecological keystone species in both habitats. Apples also became a cultural keystone species as they provided these ecosystem services and filled cultural niches. This fits with the general framework of biocomplexity as apples and humans (among other species) became co-dependent temporally and spatially. The essential ecosystem services provided by apples have been replaced, in varying degrees, by other technologies. As a result, the relationship between humans and apples is changing in some regions. However, the cultural component of this relationship may be strong enough to cause people to maintain the genetic diversity that they once found important.


Some of the questions that BRIT researchers are investigating:

What is an orchard?

What traditional ecological knowledge is maintained in orchards today?

Do orchard managers perceive any beneficial interactions between the cider apple trees and the other species within orchards, and the greater human community as a whole?

Why is there a global resurgence of cultural interest in cider?

How does this resurgence impact the environment?

Is a wide range of cultivar diversity being maintained, or is the global resurgence negatively impacting overall cultivar diversity?


BRIT Researchers, Dave Reedy and Will McClatchey, have been conducting cider research for the past several years. You can learn more about their research on the following website: The Ethnobotany of Cider Research Project.



Apple Collection

Orchard researchers photograph the apples at each site they visit to aid in identification.  In this image, Dave Reedy has cut several apples to show the structure of the Bulmer's Norman apple.


Cider Processing

Dave Reedy and Will McClatchey conduct ethnobotanical interviews in the field.  Above Janet Legge is scooping up fruit that has been crushed in her stone cider mill at Shortwood Farm in Herefordshire, England.  The crushed fruit will then be pressed to extract the juice which will be fermented.